Friday, November 9, 2007
Well the big day is tomorrow, as the Gophers take on heated rival Army, and I couldn't be more excited. And also very angry at myself. A few months ago, I was saying that an NIT bid was likely out of reach, and it would be a very successful season if the Gophers made the NIT. Now I find myself thinking that they have an outside shot at a NCAA bid. I hate stupid, groundless, homerrific thinking, and it's exactly what is happening to me. Damn you Tubby Smith.
Anyway, here are 10 biggest issues going into this season:
1. The improvement of Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson:
I almost wrote this as "The continued improvement" but then I started to realize these guys really haven't improved all that much. I mean, sure, the numbers have improved, and there have been baby steps here and there, but there's still a lot of work to be done. Think about it, the knock on Spencer as a freshman was that he was unrefined and somewhat clumsy, with a propensity to get into foul trouble, and Coleman had a nice offensive game inside and out, but was soft, didn't spend enough time in the paint, and was weak defensively. You could write this same paragraph about these guys going into this season.
It's no secret that the big dogs this season are going to be these two guys and McKenzie (more on him later). If Coleman can finally play some defense to go with his scoring, and Tollackson can stay out of foul trouble and has maybe added a little more polish to his offense, it will go a long way towards success this year.
2. Who is playing Point Guard?
Going into a basketball season with your point guard options being a freshman, two shooting guards, and a small forward is never a good idea, but that's where the Gophers stand. Ideally, Al Nolen is as good as he's looked in the exhibitions, and is able to be the starter and log most of the minutes, leaving the Payton/Westbrook/McKenzie rotation to play backup, not starter.
If Nolen is unable to handle playing the point, a definite possibility given that many knowledgeable people have questioned if he's Big Ten material, then that ugly mongrel rotation would have to step in and take all the minutes. Not only are none of those guys point guards, but forcing them to play major minutes there takes them away from what they are good at. Nolen may very well be the key to this season, and that's simply terrifying.
3. What's up with Kevin Payton?
Coming in, Payton was regarded as a 3-star swingman, but out of necessity he ended up being the starting point guard. While this showed excellent versatility, and although he did have some good games, it's pretty clear PG is not his natural position (1-1 Assist to TO ratio). He should be a scoring swingman, as evidenced by his 26.1 ppg as a high school senior. There's only one problem, he showed almost zero offensive skills last season.
He averaged just 2 points per game last season, and managed a high game of only 12, despite averaging over twenty minutes per game. Now, maybe he was deferring too much to the three juniors last year, and if that's the case hopefully Tubby can get him to be a little more aggressive on offense. The other problem might be he's just not very good. Keep in mind this is a Dan Monson recruit we're talking about here. If that's the case, I expect him to see fewer and fewer minutes, and end up transferring out at the end of the season.
4. How good can Lawrence Westbrook be?
I'm very interested to find this out. Westbrook scored 41 points per game as a junior in high school, so you know he knows how to score, but can he do it against college talent? I think so, and we're going to find out if he gets minutes. Westbrook, despite playing only 10 minutes per game last season, still managed to put up 73 shots, and was fifth on the team in three pointers attempted.
He is an undersized shooting guard, and I don't see him learning point anytime soon, so he's limited by that. The good news is that this is college not the NBA, and you can get away with having two small guards in at the same time. If he's given the minutes, which didn't happen under Monson or Molinari, he should find himself approaching double digits in scoring this season, and taking a big step forward in his development. He is the Gopher I am most excited to watch this season.
5. Abu-Shamala shouldn't be starting, right?
If you disagree with this, you don't know basketball. Shamala clearly has a role he can play on this team. He needs to be coming off the bench, maybe 5-15 minutes per game depending on the opponent and situation. He would be perfect coming in to help bust a zone or keep a defense honest if they are leaving people to double team (although I don't really know who they would need to double on this team.)
I'm sorry, I know people like white boys who hustle and are from Minnesota, but he's a terrible, terrible, terrible defender. He can't stay with players on the perimeter, because everybody is quicker than him, and he can't defend a post up player, because he isn't strong enough. He is also a poor off-the-ball defender, who can't keep up with quick cuts or get through or around screens. If you want more, he also can't create his own shot or anybody elses, can't put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, and is not good in transition. He's a shooter, plain and simple and that's it. He's good at it, but that is all he is. There is no way he should be starting, and if he is, this season is basically a failure because nobody was able to step up to take away his job (I'm looking at you Hoffarber - maybe Payton).
6. Lawrence McKenzie's Motivation:
When I heard McKenzie was transferring from a successful Oklahoma program back to his hometown Minnesota, my first question was "What the hell? Why?" But after watching him play, I figured it out. He's going with the Kris Humphries "This team sucks so I can go ahead and showcase myself for the NBA scouts and nobody will care because they're so bad" route, a Dan Monson favorite.
Well, first of all, he's dreaming if he thinks he's going to sniff the NBA. And second of all, I have to think Tubby isn't going to put up with that crap. McKenzie is a terrific shooter and scorer, that much is obvious. So was Humphries, and his agenda killed the team. McKenzie isn't to that level, so I think the combination of Tubby and a more successful team with pull him back a bit, but if he plays the same way he played last season, there's no chance at the postseason.
7. Big Man Depth:
This may very well be the biggest problem facing the Gophers this season. Bryce Webster left the team because, well, nobody really knows why, but the Gophers don't have much after Coleman and Tollackson. A lot of the minutes and pressure falls to junior Jonathan Williams, who I actually really like. I love the idea of having a shot blocking presence inside (I was in love with Antoine Broxsie too, I admit), but it would be nice if he developed some kind of ability to score as well.
It's inevitable that at some point, and hopefully not too often, both Williams and Tollackson will be in foul trouble at the same time because they're both the kind of player who gets into foul trouble a lot. You know, big, slow, overly aggressive and kind of dumb. When this happens, that's when the trouble begins. With Brandon Smith gone along with Webster, the only options are either slide Payton down or hope Damian Johnson is better than he's looked. He seems pretty athletic, and at 6-7 has the height to spend some time down low, if not the strength, but he hasn't shown any kind of basketball ability yet, and may very well be better suited in a mid-major conference. The only other option would be to use undersized Travis Busch, and I don't even want to get into the season implications if that happens.
8. Tubby's Influence:
This is the one thing that has me believing right now. First off, according to Snacks, the Gophers are playing an uptempo style right now. I think this is the right move for a team with basically only two traditional big men. Hopefully they are doing a lot of pressure and trapping on defense as well, another reason Shamala shouldn't be playing a ton of minutes.
Tubby has a proven track record, and there is some talent here, minute though it may be. I have full faith in him to squeeze everything out of this team, and make the same bunch who went 9-22 last season into a middle-tier Big Ten team.
9. Ongoing Recruiting Battles:
There are two really big targets still out there for next season, both guards in Devoe Joseph and Verdell Jones, who I would really love to see come to the U next season. There are plenty of other targets as well I'd be happy with, Haralson, Leslie, and even Faber spring to mind, but Joseph and Jones would really put this recruiting class towards the top. Jones is especially important if Nolen doesn't work out, although Joseph is the more exciting pick up. Stay tuned.
10. Just how awesome is Rico Tucker?
Well, he already won Pepperdine's dunk contest, so he still has the ridiculous athletic ability. In Pepperdine's only exhibition game, he started, but clearly the coach is another Monson because he only let him play 16 minutes and limited him to four shots. Of those he made two, including a three pointer, went 2-2 from the line, and dished out 3 assists to go with his seven points. I think it's clear that if this coach ever pulls his head out of his ass and unleashes the monster that is Rico, we're looking at All-American type potential.
FINAL VERDICT: NIT bid